6

Finding Your Blog Voice: A Preview

I got caught up in federal grant proposal season and didn’t tell you that I’m going to be speaking at WordCamp San Francisco this weekend!

I’ll post highlights from my talk either here or on my business site, but for now I want to offer a few tidbits and ask what you think about, or want to know about, blog voice.

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

I believe that voice, for writers, photographers, artists, and bloggers, simmers when you cook a topic in style and passion. When you choose what you want to communicate, form it in the way you, a human with experiences and opinions, want to convey it, and inform that communication with the reasons that drive you to write/photograph/draw/blog…that concoction is your voice. And it’s repeatable when you focus on the how and the why of what you choose to talk about, as long as that style is your genuine voice, your impetus is honest, and your style gets out of the way of your truth.

Wordy, I know. I have a couple of days to make that more clear. Luckily, between my slides and my tendency to present in monosyllabic caveperson grunts, my experience with and ideas about voice should be clearer in the talk.

I have really cool examples, too.

So what do you want to hear about blog voice? If I can, I’ll add it to the talk before I present and subsequently post.

Requests?

8

A good solid pout

Last week, Butterbean had a traumatic crash. We were running, despite his protests, to get me some energy for a long day of obligations. I was pushing his scooter when he hit a big bump and fell on his face. The big piece of meat fauceting blood off his chin threw me into an adrenaline-high that lasted the whole day. I was exhausted that night, sore from tensing everything, including my guilt muscles.

The next morning I got up early to run so I would be to the soccer game on time. A glorious 10 mile run at dawn. Too short, I pouted silently, but exactly right to prioritize my son.

I fell on a relatively uncomfortable asphalt hill trying to take a shortcut to Peanut’s game—braced my fall with my outstretched arm and likely tore something in my shoulder. I’ll see the doctor tomorrow, but decent amounts of pain and very limited mobility don’t bode well for a quick recovery. It’s a shoulder, nature’s most ludicrous of joints.

Rice University image via Creative Commons

Rice University image via Creative Commons

It’s been three days of looking on the bright side, caring for a stitched up preschooler, and trying to protect my injured arm, I’m officially worn out. I’m pouting.

Pain brings out my nastiest, grouchiest, most petulant side. I hate being injured. I have plans. I want to run and cook and write and chase my kids. I want to not regret having a stick shift and to wash three heads of hair without thinking about it. Guess how much you use your dominant arm for when you make your living on a computer and spend a good portion of your waking hours with children. I’ll help you on this one: a lot.

I’m a single parent trying to function with one arm. And that’s not a big deal, given that it’s temporary and I’ll be fine eventually. I’m lucky. Other people live with chronic pain, other people live with altered mobility…a few weeks isn’t going to be a big deal and I want to kick myself for whining.

I can make mac-n-cheese and scrambled eggs for several weeks if I have to. I can give up fencing for a few months or years. I will get back to running, maybe even in time for the race I’m already registered for. I can have the boys’ dad come over and change sheets like I did yesterday. And he can help with pumpkin carving.

But I’m not in the mood for this. Even with daily gratitude and warm bright smiles at everyone who needs one, I just can’t find the cheerful. Joyful, yes. Cheerful, no.

I have a big presentation this weekend, and I’m excited. I’m a demonstrative presenter and I like gesticulating. So I’m now rehearsing with one arm pinned against my side. I’ll be fine, it’ll be a good talk. But I’m still grouchy at my stupid decision. I gauged the slope of the hill and thought I could make it. I knew I probably couldn’t, but I live most days by the skin of my teeth, so I figured I could do this.

Idiot.

And I fell flat on my face rushing from on “should” to another. I got up, brushed myself off, shrugged off the blood dripping slowly from my knee, and went to the soccer game. I took more than 200 photos and chatted with several parents.

They’re delightful. We’re so lucky to have such kind people in our lives.

I’m just tired of all the DUTIES I must perform. I’m so exhausted from loading meals with vitamins and fiber and whole grains. I’m tired of driving people places. I’m tired of worrying about what comes next. I’m tired of deadlines and clients and having four minutes to myself a day. I’m tired. That’s not unusual. In fact, it’s rather droll of me to even say aloud, given how terribly sleep-deprived most of us are.

I fully acknowledge how ludicrous to write in a late-night blog post that I’m tired. But, I believe we’ve been over this: I’m so g*ddamned tired.

The man who drove us to the hospital to get Butter’s stitches lives several miles from us (we were on a run, remember, and too-far-too-drive-my-kid-to-the-hospital far from home when it happened). Our hero was so incredibly kind and selfless that I brought his family a thank you note and gift certificate. His favorite team is in the World Series tonight and I wanted to make their day easier with some Zachary’s. I handed the envelope to his wife, who told me I didn’t have to do this. We fell in front of the right house, she said. “This is what he does,” she insisted. And she pointed to my shoulder, in a sling, and said, “It’s time to slow down, you know.”

The idea is so foreign to me I can’t quite articulate why I found her insistence at once sweet and ridiculous.

How the heck can I do that?

I’m scrambling to get enough work to pay the bills, and I’m filling up every waking minute with obligations. I am not giving my kids enough, my creative work languishes in files untouched for months. There’s a long list of people I want to have over for brunch, which is genuinely the way I show love. I haven’t seen my favorite human on the planet, my grandma, in almost a month.

How exactly am I supposed to slow down?

Last night, in pain and unable to take any more sibling bickering, I lay down on the couch to take a break. I’d never actually sat on this couch. The old one got a big hole from two children pretending to be ninjas and launching themselves off it, so I scoured craigslist for a daybed. Our guest room has been rented out, and it’s nice to have a couch friends or family can actually sleep on. But we’ve had it for several weeks and I’d never sat on it.

I was lying supine, protecting my shoulder, for about a minute before I fell asleep. At 6:00 pm with my kids fighting 20 feet away about a frisbee, I just passed out.

I don’t know if my exhaustion is physical, emotional, or mental. Or all three. I cleared a huge deadline and went straight into two more, smaller deadlines. I helped my little guy get stitched up and then hours later screwed up my precarious sense of wholeness. The separation is still a logistical struggle and I’m overcommitted. All my runs, except the long run on my day without the kids, take place in the presence of a preschooler on a scooter, chasing him at top speed downhill and pushing his full 40 pounds uphill.

How dare I complain…but I can’t not type this: can’t anything be easy?

I’m worried about us. I’m worried that I don’t have enough to offer my kids or myself. I’m worried that I’m trying too hard to keep consulting rather than find a staff job.

I’m worried that if I slow down I’ll lose. Lose what, I’m not sure. But I know the feeling at Mrs. Hero’s suggestion about slowing down felt like panic.

Sheer, unadulterated, panic.

I hope, whatever the doctor says this morning, it involves the words, “do yourself a favor and play this track on the way home…”

8

My love letter to audiobooks

I’d gotten to the point in my midlife when I thought I wouldn’t fall in love again. I’ve had my turns with relationships, and learned something glorious from each. My love for my children teaches me about infinity and about dark human frailties. My love for my friends dances about like dandelion seeds, unpredictable and lovely.

GS3188127

And until I found you I thought nothing could surprise me.

Friends told me about you. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really hear them. Blah blah podcasts, blah blah library downloads. “No, thanks,” I thought. Audiobooks are what my parents listen to when they drive cross country. Books on tape we call them. You can’t hope to get a good story going in the 20 minutes on the way to the increasingly-too-freaking-far-away preschool. I can’t hear a story…really hear…on the way to the grocery store or a meeting.

The kids and I checked out audio CDs for long day trips. King Arthur legend stuff and The Hobbit. Things I didn’t want to read aloud at night. Because that reading is precious. First the back and forth of “little guy chooses a book, then big guy reads from his Just-Right chapter book, then little guy gets another, then big guy reads again…” until we brush teeth. Then the big story after lights out. Well, lights out except for the sea turtle who throws stars on the ceiling, a gift from their uncle that keeps us company all Fall and Winter. Turtle time is big story time…Peanut and I deliberate in the library and in front of our bookcases full of kids’ books. Charlotte’s Web, Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter. I save those marvelous books for “real” reading: my voice, our mismatched-but-once-inextricably-linked bodies cuddled in the big chair, focused on the spotlighted page that becomes, in the book light’s insistence, a stage on which our nightly story plays out.

Audiobooks were for the stuff I didn’t want to read. That we could finish on a trip to the beach and back, or that took too much work.

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can't an audiobook do this for me?

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can’t an audiobook do this for me?

But then I got an email. Two free books to try it out. Any titles you want.

Um…can’t hurt to try? Blind date with an audiobook. I’m not ready for something new, and I don’t foresee love in my future, but I can try. Whatever. Free is good. Novelty is sometimes okay, even for the change-averse.

Oh, good heaven how you bowled me over.

Our first date was in the car, after a client kick-off meeting when I needed to relax a bit. We connected. I laughed. At once I knew we were going to be friends. And when I got home, you came in with me. You followed me around as I set up my desk for the new project, as I planned dinner. You walked with me when it was time to pick up my son at school, and it just felt right. I wasn’t ashamed. I was having a good time.

I knew our relationship would be challenging for my children, and I knew they had to come first, no matter how I was falling for you. I believe very firmly that they shouldn’t meet anyone new in my life right now. They need to know they’re the most important voices in my life. So I hit pause on our new…whatever this is, I don’t dare label it yet because you’re too new and I’m too caught up to be objective…and walked home with my son. And we played and talked and did our family things. Without you. We picked up my younger son and we all went to soccer. Without you. On the pitch we had dinner, the one I had prepared while you were reading to me. And I smiled a silly schoolgirl grin. Because eating now reminded me of great books. And walking reminded me of great books. And the car, that dreaded convenience that gets me to and from the 10,000 places a day we should be? It reminds me of you and how happy you make me.

Predictably, I’ve gotten a bit lax about keeping you and my family separate. Now when I make breakfast you’re with me, reading to me and filling our hectic morning with measured, adult speech where was there was only shrieking and teasing and laughter and whining. And when the kids want something or I have to help them, you steel me for the less-savory of my tasks with your gentle 30-second rewind and your reassuring pause button. “I’ll wait for you,” you seem to say. “Go ahead. Take care of your family. You love them and they love you and I’ll just wait.”

And you do. And when I return, hours or days later, you know just where we left off. You’ve wooed me with humor and impressed me with heart-wrenching moments. You keep me company while I clean, cook, and write invoices. You make carpooling and grocery shopping engaging.

You make me love mindless tasks, something I haven’t felt since I was young and child-free and trying to discern the origins of the Universe while I vacuumed. Though I value what I do for my family as much as I do the tasks I complete for clients, somehow I don’t feel the family-work is enough. Before you, dishes were a necessary waste of time, and they kept me from what I love. Grocery runs were just stupid burdens. Making lunch? A chore.

And now, with you, I love the grocery store. And dishes. Lunches have become intricate and engaging because I can justify seeding a pomegranate and shaping sandwiches. I have to do these tasks with or without you. But you make them interesting. And productive. I know I could try the rest of my life to fight the need to make every waking moment productive, but why? It’s who I am.

And you get that. You love that. You understand me, and, I am here to say loudly and in front of the whole Internet, I love that about you. What I’ve missed most about my old life, my life before kids, is reading. Frequent, barely-pausing-to-blink, all-engrossing engagement in books.

I’m not going to get into semantics. I don’t know if our relationship is reading or if it’s listening or if it’s entertainment. I won’t slow down long enough to care. I don’t do the high-brow/low-brow arguments that graduate school pretty well beats out of readers. And I don’t want to examine yet…oh, heavens, not while our love is still new…what you’re doing to my relationship with music.

Thank you for the three wonderful books you’ve read me over the past two weeks. I hope my intense love continues to grow. I adore you so much I’m willing to share you with others, which is something I could only ever say about my children. You’re welcome to be as compelling as you want and to draw as many people to yourself as you want.

The more the merrier, dear love. Bring ‘em on.

10

One chicken comes home to roost then snowballs and mixes all my metaphors

Well. I knew it would happen. I knew the anti-honeymoon would eventually happen.

I’ve been blogging a bit about how our family is settling into two households and how that has been better for everyone. I’ve made sure to caveat how sad and caveat how hard we’re working. And caveat anything tangential because caveats are my wont.

Not always, of course, but when necessary.

See? They’re like candy. So delicious and so hard to stop.

Anyway. The kids have handled the separation well and have been kinder to each other. Notice how I used the past tense. Because holy guacamole is the older one being mean lately.

He's moving closer and closer to prison, it seems.

He’s moving closer and closer to prison, it seems.

I could blame the separation. I could blame the new school year. I could blame anything, really, but it’s coming down to either he’s headed straight to prison or I’m doing everything wrong.

Those two options pretty much cover it, I think. No other choices.

He’s a wonderful child, full of imagination and scientific logic, generally kind and very funny. His greatest pleasure is making me laugh. So whatever bodysnatcher has a hold of his shell is having a great time, because this child is clearly possessed by an alien, ghoul, monster, or bank CEO.

At least once a day this week he’s yelled in my face that whatever we’re talking about is none of my business, or telling me to shut up. He’s grabbed my arm, hard, to make me understand that he wants me out of his personal space.

And all of this rage has gotten an, “Oh, NO. You can’t talk to me that way. I’ll listen to what you have to say if you take a breath and talk kindly.” He knows he has more power with his hands and his voice down, but he doesn’t care. He knows that he can take a breath or take some time apart from situations that make him mad, but he doesn’t care. He seems to want to make everyone miserable. He has been grabbing his four-year-old brother by the shoulders and squeezing hard, for even slight infractions of what he perceives, at eight years old, as the right way to do things. He’s enforcing the rules with an iron fist, and I don’t like it.

And I tell him “you’re important to this family and your opinion matters, but you may not police other people. Your body is your job, and you are not responsible for anyone else but you. If he makes you mad, walk away. Take a break.”

This usually gets an epithet barked at me. And then a privilege taken away.

Yesterday he bickered with a playdate as though they were siblings, calling each other names (I stopped that kindly) and criticizing each other’s homework habits (I stopped that kindly) and challenging each other on how to play games properly (I told them they could go to separate rooms if they wanted to fight, but that I welcomed them finding solutions together.) It was annoying. At soccer practice, Peanut criticized the same boy for something he did near the goal, and the boy lost it. He pushed Peanut, who pushed back. The coach talked to them and had them talk about what they needed and wanted. Peanut very impressively said, “I don’t like it when you push me, but that doesn’t give me the right to push you.” And then he went home and pushed his brother.

And this morning started the whole cycle again.

You're eight. Life is outrageously easy. Stop it with the assholery.

You’re eight. Life is outrageously easy. Stop it with the assholery.

He’s also having outsized tantrums in which he digs in his heels and simply won’t give up. He sat on the edge of the tub for 45 minutes the other night refusing to brush his teeth because I got too angry with his refusal to floss and gave myself a timeout. He refused to brush until I sat with him. I explained that my kindness had run dry and he was welcome to come in for a long hug when he was done brushing, but that I wasn’t going to sit with him. He finally brushed when I set a timer and told him he had five minutes to get in bed, else be excused from soccer the next day for lack of adequate rest.

I’m weary of this rage from a small boy. I asked him what he needs. I asked if he’s tired or needs a break from soccer or needs extra hugs. He told me needs a family without a brother. I said I hear his frustrations and helped him think of ideas for getting more time away from the little tyrant. He’s been saying for 3 years that he wants a family without a brother, ever since Butter learned to walk. I listen sympathetically, but, quite reasonably, don’t offer to find him a family without a brother. They don’t have a great relationship. Peanut is a rule follower and rule enforcer, and his brother writes his own rules. Peanut hates that little kids can’t do everything as well as he can and don’t heed his every request. He also has the insecure human’s need to make others feel small when he doesn’t feel strong enough. After an hour or so of puzzling out something impressive, he’s magnanimous and kind to his brother. Proud of himself from science class or engineering projects or video game design, he wants to teach and listen and generally beam with pride. But that feeling of pride is too rare to sustain their relationship.

Something is making my son retreat inward and create nothing but Dark Art magic with his considerable brain and usually kind heart.

The possible list of causes are:
All my fault
Mostly my fault
Personality glitch
Entirely due to the separation
Lack of downtime in busy weeks
Mostly due to the separation
Totally my fault.

On the walk to school today, we caught up with a neighbor mom and her kindergartener. Her older son is in Peanut’s class, and I assumed he was home sick. On the walk, though, she told me that he has been impossible lately, refusing to get ready, yelling at her, and expecting way more nannying than a third grader should. She said she was fed up, and when he talked nasty to her this morning, she left him home. His father agreed to stay home long enough for our friend to get the little one to school and back. Peanut’s friend had already missed soccer practice this week due to ragingly bad attitude.

I was so happy I could barely speak. Because her kid’s asshattery can’t be All My Fault. I barely know him. And odds that their mutual ridiculous behavior are collectively All Our Fault are slim. So the list of potential causes shifts to:
Full moon
Lunar eclipse
Early-onset puberty
Toxic chemicals in drinking water that only affects eight-year-olds
Totally my fault, so much so that my ill will affects several blocks in each direction.

Anyone else with a particularly rude eight year old lately? Wanna blame it on me? Or take some of the blame for my kid this week? We could swap responsibility until they’re 30 or so. Or we can all blame it on my failed marriage. That would do wonders for my need to poke that open wound a bit. Hey, we could blame your kid’s nastiness on my kid’s nastiness and vice versa! Come on! It’ll be fun!

2

Make it stop

“You have a new bill. The school carnival is coming up. Your library books are overdue. 50% off two great deals. A note to parents. Fly from $79 one way. Your photos are on their way. Listserv digest. JSTOR daily. School announcement. ICYM. Blog post. Confirm auto billpay. You have a new bill. Kickoff meeting. University Press new release. You’ve been added as a member to the share site. Eye appointment reminder. Reply to your post. Friend in need. You have a new bill. Picture day tomorrow. Half marathon coming soon. Public radio needs you. Congress needs you. Please give money. You have a new bill. Halloween party needs planners.” —one of three inboxes

We all have detritus cluttering our lives. Floating bits of to-do and should-do and hurry-and-do that drift around in our vision and settle as a thick layer of dust on our counters. And books and beloved objects.

But not on our computers. Oh, no. Those get plenty of use.

I’d like a day, as would every single person I know, without emails to return, without lunches to make, without bills and crap and nonsense. I’d really like, as I’m willing to bet most people would, to focus on being my best self, engaging with my family, working hard on the things that make me valuable to society. And I’d love to do that without the flotsam and jetsam of crap that litters my to-do list.

So I delete the unnecessary emails and I unsubscribe from lists I swear I never joined.

And that eats 20 minutes of my day.

I feed the humans and felines in my house and I tidy and I ask them to help and we get the tactical stuff done.

And that eats hours of my day.

I think about the ways in which I can be an advocate and an ally, and I weigh the time or money I would need to contribute.

And I guiltily cut saving the world to 30 minutes of my day.

And I work on client deadlines and dream of a day when I can write my own stuff. I want to work on my book so badly it’s making me itch. But it will be at least a week before I have the time. Because I work for people who will pay me now for my writing.

And to that I willingly give hours of my day.

Transporting small people and navigating their conflicts and helping them learn to talk to each other kindly and reading and playing and cooking…they take up hours of my day. Good use of time. But hours nonetheless.

I don’t know why I keep coming back to this space, but I do. I’ve wanted to commit blogicide so often it’s become normal to think, “well, clearly I’ll never write there again, so do I delete the whole thing or just never go back?”

A flair for the dramatic, but also, I’m beginning to see, a perfectly normal state of being for bloggers.

I’ve had several long-term bloggers tell me that killing your blog and reinventing it is a moral imperative.

So I feel guilty for not writing here, and now also guilty for writing here, my blog 1.0?

I only know that I’m functionally incapable of life without a journal. And for more than six years, this has been my place.

So maybe I should kill the blog or reinvent the blog or abandon the blog or reinvigorate the blog.

But for now, I dash of a quick complaint about my inbox whining at me that it needs more from me. That it wants to be heard. That it needs a glass of water.

Grow up, inbox. I have other things to handle, and you can do it yourself.

8

Mr. or Ms.?

My oldest son, Peanut, was reading to his dad while I read to the youngest. We were spread across my big bed, west to east: 44, 8, 41, 4. And Peanut was reading something mythical that involved Dukes and Duchesses. But he didn’t know what those titles meant. So his dad explained briefly about Prince and Princess versus Duke and Duchess in the way that only postcolonial, anti-feudal Americans can.

credit hotblack via morguefile

The gist of it was: peripheral royalty, different word for each gender.

“What would Jay be?” Peanut asked.

It’s been six months since Jay died. I’ve written about him often, including once since his death.

And in none of those posts did I mention that he was transgendered. Mostly because it’s none of my business. Part of being an ally means that friends who are different from me aren’t marked by what they are or how they self define, but by my relationship to them. I said as much to my son when he called someone at school gay.

Jay wasn’t just my friend who was born an adorable Mormon girl and lost family and Church and marriage as he found out who he was. He was my friend, a kind dad who was also a mom; a human who had great days and bad days but was always nice even to really dreadful people. And who he was—day to day—was more important to how I thought of our relationship than the long road that brought him into my life.

And Peanut knew Jay as kind and funny and awesome. And he also vaguely knew Jay used to be a woman, because it had come up in a conversation about being who you really are inside. So I told him casually about transgender people when it was pertinent to the discussion. I didn’t bring it up to shock or preach or titillate. I mentioned Jay being able to finally be who he really was, because it was part of what we were talking about that day.

And after a few questions entirely appropriate for a kindergartener (which he was, at the time), it was just another fact about another friend. No big deal. Never came up again, nor should it have.

But this week, six months after Jay died, six months after he left his new wife and their blended family of three kids to figure out how to live without him, Peanut asked if Jay would have been a Duke or a Duchess.

I choked back the sob of surprise and pain that catches all of us unaware just as we’ve learned to live with loss. And I tried my best to answer.

IMAG4142z

“Well, back in the time that book is talking about, a long time ago, people believed you are what you’re born. They didn’t talk about people wanting to be a different gender, or about wanting to marry someone from the same gender, or about women having jobs or anyone voting. So Jay would have been born a Duchess, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t be a Duke. There were definitely people back then who didn’t feel right in their bodies, and some who wanted to be different than they were born. But it just didn’t happen. People didn’t like difference.”

He frowned. “But if everybody agreed that it’s okay to…if everybody agreed…if…” He couldn’t find the words he wanted. “If everybody agreed it was okay to be whoever you really are, then could Jay have…?” He paused and waited.

“Do you mean could he have changed his body? Did they know about hormones and the way bodies become men and women bodies?”

“Yeah.”

“No, they didn’t know about the science of bodies. And so even if everyone agreed that Duchess Jay could go ahead and be himself as Duke Jay like some people do now, he wouldn’t have been able to take the hormones that gave him a beard and a lower voice and things like that. They didn’t know about hormones, and they didn’t have the science to make them and give them to Jay.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, buddy?”

“What.”

“You don’t need everybody to agree for you to be who you are. You just need a few allies, people who believe in you and support you. Doesn’t matter everyone else thinks.”

And I kept reading to Butterbean, telling myself I could cry later.

Because even more painful than the fact that I’ll never see Jay again, can’t talk to him and can only see his kids in a new house without him, is the idea that for thousands of years of human existence, Jay would have had no idea he could be anyone else, would have had no way to become who he really needed to be. I can’t imagine living in a world like that, where Jay would have been and remained and felt wrong as Julie.

But I’ll bet in that world we would have been friends. Because Jay’s friendship wasn’t about gender, not when I met him and not when I found out about his transition. Or his pregnancy. Or his cancer.  Friendships aren’t usually about gender. Who Jay was for me is entirely defined by what kind of friend he was. And that wasn’t based on anatomy or hormone profile or what existed under his clothes. It was based on his heart.

I miss you, Jay.  And I don’t care whether you’re a Duke or a Duchess. I just really miss your kind heart.

 

 

8

Reasonable Question

“Mommy, you know how you don’t love Daddy anymore…I mean, not that you don’t love him or not that you don’t like him, but you know how he makes you sad when he yells at you? Well, do we have to have two camp sites when we go camping?”

blink blink blink

blink.

“Well, honey, some day we probably will have two camp sites. And that might be fun because Daddy will cook on his campfire and I will cook on my campfire, and you can choose which campfire dinner to eat. And you can even choose to eat both!”

“Yeah!”

“For now, we still share a campsite. And we’re a family, even if we live in two houses or have two campsites.”

“And even if we have two marshmallow fires, right?”

“Yeah, Butterbean. Even then. It sounds pretty good to me to have two marshmallow fires.”

“Me, too.”

IMG_2137

But it doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like what we have to do, to be civil and keep the best of what we have to offer the kids, but I’m lying to my son when I say it sounds good to have two marshmallow fires. It sounds like a waste of wood and excessive pollution and too much work. Two campfires sounds to me like the acrid smell that won’t wash out of my hair for two days isn’t even my smell; it belongs, in part, to someone else and it follows me around for the better part of the week, surprising me with an acid taste in my mouth each time I move my head quickly.

Everyone all together was my hope for their childhoods and for my marriage. I don’t want to offer them two homes instead of one, and I don’t want to pay two rents  instead of one. But that’s our reality. Together, Spouse and I fight. Apart we are much kinder. And I’m not going to rehash here the time honored “but they’re happier now and you’re happier now and sometimes marriages just don’t work but you’re doing a great job of making them feel loved even though clearly you made bad choices and probably shouldn’t even be allowed to have children because you’re so bad at decision making” cycle of self loathing some divorced parents go through. Okay, that I go through.

I will say that it’s uncomfortably hard to tell my kids they can’t have the comfort of having everyone who loves them sleep in one house. Or that we can’t split the team and play man-to-man at book-reading time. Instead, there are really only groups of three, and they have to learn to get a lot less solo attention. They’re the center of a Venn diagram, and one of the adults is generally shut out.

What killed me about the campsite question is that he knows there aren’t easy words to put to the situation: it’s not a lack of love or a lack of like…it’s a dynamic between two people who bring out each other’s worst. And they saw it. We were two people treating each other like adversaries instead of partners. And my children felt it. They treat each other like adversaries, too. I feel the guilt of that hourly.

But now they see that two adults can choose to stop being a bad pair and become better people alone. That people can choose to examine their problems and find a solution. A kind solution. A gentle solution. An unwanted but necessary solution.

Later this month I’m giving a talk on finding your blog voice. And staying true to my own writing voice has meant being honest. I don’t blog so I can put on a mask and pretend. For that I have theater. But a blog voice also means permanence and not writing something I’ll regret and want to delete years later. A blog voice means addressing the pain but knowing that just beyond the empathetic friends and sympathetic readers is a future employer who might read this as part of a decision-making process. So being honest and being forever is challenging in transitions like a divorce. I have to talk about solutions but not really explain the problem. I’m not here to air my marriage and its failings. I’m not going to degrade my co-parent in a public forum. And I can’t be here in full therapy mode. That’s not me hiding the truth. But it’s not me being completely frank, either. I’m not comfortable here, right in between a rock and a brick wall.

This blog is where I tell my stories, and aching for my kids that their family seems incomplete, no matter how we configure it, is my story right now. I want to tell that story. Carefully.

Thankfully, my sons’ version of this story is a delightful revisionist world in which they get double marshmallows.

Maybe they’ll share with you.

 

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

 

12

Group storytelling

As our family dissolves its current form and grows again to a new structure, we’re developing dozens of lovely traditions.

And my absolute favorite is the family story.

We talk each day about our favorite parts of the day, and our biggest challenges; we talk about gratitude and feelings.

And now, when the kids seem bored, when we share time together, when we travel in the car, and especially when dim lighting and clean teeth spell the end of the day, we invent a story. Together. Sometimes as three people, and sometimes as four. Each person tells one sentence of a new story. Each subsequent person builds upon it. Until it’s done. And then we do it again.

Tonight:

There once was a tree with several leaves.
And nearby there was a tree with lots of leaves.
And those two trees began growing toward each other.
One day they touched together.
And they began dripping honey.
And they grew together some more.
And they spilled all the honey on the ground.
This made them fight.
A bear stopped by to say, “Don’t worry, there’s enough honey for everyone.”
So every animal in the forest came and took what they needed.
And the trees were happy.
And the animals were happy.
And full of honey.
The End.

 

10

Part time job

My kids accompanied me to the post office, and they balked at getting out of the car.

I told them they had to come in, and they rolled their eyes.

The post office housed a handful of people who weren’t in the mood, I could tell from their mirthless stares, for small boys. But as a paying customer, I silently recalled my breastfeeding mantra: “Anyplace I have a legal right to be, I have a legal right to do this.” I don’t think the law covers giggling children who want to rearrange postal products, but I tried not to think about such technicalities.

As each person before us in line approached the counter, explained their purpose, and paid, the boys grew more silly, more wiggly, more frustrating. Not their fault. Nobody likes standing in line. But such is life, occasionally, and they were going from play time to more play time, so they needed to learn to occupy themselves when bored.

And then eight-year-old Peanut spotted a coin near the front desk. He lunged across the room and prostrated himself on the low-pile industrial carpet hoping his treasure wasn’t a mirage.

I asked him to please get up.

His brother joined him.

I asked them to please get off the floor.

They wriggled around, quietly. Intently.

I asked them to please, please come stand by me.

The four-year-old grunted a bit, pressed for air as he snuffled along on his belly, covering himself in decades of federal-service filth, “We’re finding money!” I tried not to laugh. They’re so darned delicious and I so need bits of the unusual and ridiculous in my life.

And suddenly the room full of grousers smiled. I looked around. They were happy the little urchins were calm. I hated to admit it, but I was, too. It was disgusting to watch, and it was embarrassing to spend the rest of the day with abhorrently dirty children.

But Peanut made 78 cents, and Butterbean earned 35 cents, just by slithering all over a post office carpet for a few minutes.

At this rate we’re going to have their college funds fully loaded by December.

Look for us at a post office near you.

6

Open Tabs

My draft list of ideas to post includes seven items, none of which I have time for tonight.

Instead, I’ll regale you with a story of how many tabs I have open right now: 38 total.

I have 20 tabs in one window, which is exclusively for the research I’m doing for a client project. At least four of those are PDFs with more than 56 pages to read. And with an air-tight NDA, that’s about the most I can tell you.

I have 18 tabs in another window, which comprises my personal search results. This includes:
1. Some Bored Panda stuff for the reluctant little carpooling friend who’s scared to come over. I want to briber her with carefully curated content she can see and I can then send to her parents for an evening showing with her older brother.
2. Several Instructables, including kinetic arts and dragons’ egg
3. Recipes I know the kids will help me make and eat, like baked granola bowls for serving yogurt
4. A New Republic article on Updike that my buddy Matt Bucher linked to on the Twitters, the article itself representing not much more than my wish that somehow reading it will get someone to sponsor a conference so a nice group of us can have another dinner together.
5. Some FTP client file management tutorials including character encoding verification dialogs that made me cry when I read them, because foreign language
6. A Five Dials special issue memorializing David Foster Wallace
7. A Brain, Child article on introverts
8. Event website mounting a search for local half-marathons
9. Pinterest boards of emergency bags so I can remember to update our earthquake supplies and manually backup my computer

I need to close these tabs. I need to schedule email time and not respond outside those hours. I need to schedule some yoga time, too.

And I need to pull out a book, after closing those tabs.

Dozens of open tabs that signify all I *want* to be doing but clearly am not. Tabs that promise efficiency and productivity “if I just have five minutes…”

But maybe I really will attend to those pressing and compelling matters, the portals to which I’ve opened by the wonders of the Interwebs. I try the email thing first, before closing all the work I did to find those tabs in the first place. Because life is too short to throw away all your useful web searching time by closing valuable tabs.

And don’t tell me to Instapaper the pages, by the way. I never read the articles I save there.

How many tabs do you have open, and do you actually read them, or just spend weeks wanting to read them?

 

4

Trying Hard Not to Rearrange Furniture

I texted friends yesterday that I might need them to come help me move furniture. By the time they replied their faux excitement about the prospect of carrying my stuff around the house, I told them it might not be necessary.

Maybe.

When I’m stressed, I rearrange furniture. As a child whose family relocated a lot, and as an adult who has moved 17 times since freshman year of college, I learned that change comes in big, obvious, irreversible phases that look like new opportunities amongst the rearranged furniture. Moving to a new place was always about hope and new starts and gentle change. Because everything’s still there, just the space is different.

When my adrenals rattle my teeth with doses of neurochemicals that say I should panic, I connect the sensation with living somewhere new. So I either move or I change the whole layout of the house. I don’t actually plan to move right now, so I need to make my house look as though I’ve moved.

(Totally not my house. I love how that weird suburban McMansion photo shoot used light and a throw rug to make me think they really rearranged. False. My kind of rearranging means this room would have the furniture from another room and all this fly-fishing-cabin stuff would be in the kids’ room. Or garage. Rearranging isn’t moving something two feet. It’s relocating and purging until you don’t recognize the room at all.)

But didn’t I just rearrange a few months ago? Some of the furniture left to go to Spouse’s new apartment. Some got sold. And some went downstairs this week because I’m getting a new roommate.

Yep. I’m 41 years old, newly single parent, and I’m taking on a boarder to help cover the rent. All I have to do is start cooking cabbage and washing neighbor’s laundry and I’ll be a set-piece in a late-Nineteenth-Century American novel.

School started last week, which has unnerved me, too. So the need to rearrange is likely stemming from big changes. But still everyone is healthy and reasonably happy. Despite the separation, the boys’ dad spends a lot of time at our house being a parent and showing the kids that he’s not leaving.

That means, though, his admirable efforts at making the boys feel loved and safe are all. up. in. my. face.

Poor guy. He came over last weekend so I could work. And after a long day of chasing after kids and bikes and scooters, he took a shower.

But he put a new soap in the shower. After I opened the shower door and saw it, I called him to the bathroom and extensively explained the concept of leaving things as you find them. He has thoughtfully moved tons of my stuff in the past few months, and it’s driving me crazy. I put my running shoes by the door so I don’t forget them, he puts them in the closet where they belong. I put the kids’ lunch boxes on the counter because they need to be washed, he puts them in the cupboard where they should be. I hang a jacket on a doorknob because it needs to go into storage, he puts it back in the closet where it used to live. I might have used the phase “You’re welcome here, but you don’t live here, so stop deciding where stuff goes,” instead of biting my tongue, as I should.

For years we’ve been using the nicer downstairs shower. But that is now part of the in-law rental unit, and I’ve consolidated everything from both bathrooms into the smaller one upstairs. And it felt nice and grownup and efficient to finally have a space that nobody in the whole family uses but me.

My shower.  MY shower.

And then I come home after banging my brains against a federal grant proposal, and there’s a soap MY SHOWER.

I am fully aware that he didn’t do anything wrong. The guy wanted soap. It doesn’t matter whether he thought I forgot or couldn’t find the soap, or whether he didn’t think anything at all except “I need soap.” It’s a fair desire, that of having soap in a drenching cubicle whose primary purpose is cleaning. I can’t fault him for wanting, finding, and getting soap.

Except it was my shower. MY shower. Was. Now it has ex-partner-who-wanted-soap-and-found-soap-and-added-soap tainted idea-germs all over it. I don’t want his ideas in my shower.

That’s so stupid I can barely type it. But this is my blog and my truth, so I’m willing to be crazy here, even if only for a little…well, okay, most of the time.

But it comes down to this simple and difficult reality: separating from a partner with whom I will coparent for a long, long time is genuinely challenging. I like the world black and white, not grey. I want extremes. And when I am part of a relationship that ends, I want it to actually end.

Surprise that’s not a surprise: there’s no ending a relationship with a co-parent. We’re not teenagers anymore and we can’t just stop calling each other and avoid each other at the mall. This is joint-back-to-school-night territory, y’all.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been prepared for the apocalypse, as long as that catastrophic upheaval involves the complete inability to buy soap. I once had a roommate laugh, “Well, at least we’re prepared for the next Great Soap Famine,” unwittingly insensitive to the hoarding tendencies that make me collect soap in neat rows at the back of bathroom cupboards. I had rows and rows of soap in the hall cupboard of many of those 17 apartments, but I’ve been working to whittle down the stock since moving back to the Bay Area several years ago. I don’t need to prepare for the emergency poverty that might strike and leave me without soap (or any means of buying soap). I don’t need to imagine a time when there’s no soap at the store or no open stores when I need soap or no…I don’t know what. I don’t know why I hoard soap. It’s not as though I shower that much. I just know I need to stop hoarding soap. I have enough, I tell myself as I pass the soap aisle. I have enough, I am enough, I will always have enough, I will always be enough.

Don't worry...I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

Don’t worry…I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

But since Butter was conceived five years ago, I’ve been hoarding shower gel. Not using it, because I do prefer soap. But paring down the soap collection has me compelled to build a shower gel stash. I shouldn’t call it a hoard. That diminishes the mental illness that genuine hoarders have. I only have six or seven half-gallon bottles of shower gel. Whenever Grocery Outlet has the big 32-ounce size of my favorite brand of natural, toxin-free beauty products, I buy the shower gel. And shampoo. And conditioner. But not compulsively. That would be crazy. I only buy another jug of organic cleansing products if the scent is right. There’s no use hoarding gardenia shampoo or rose conditioner. I don’t want my apocalypse miserable, people. I just want to be prepared. And really, really, really clean for the zombies. Or maybe prepared in the event that bake sales in the zombie age become soap sales.

eo

I only have three half gallons of shampoo, four of conditioner, and six of shower gel. And that’s totally normal and not at all weird.

So my new shower, my space that meant embracing change and taking a deep breath and accepting hard choices…that shower had shower gel but no soap. That shower, the one we haven’t used in the three years since we moved in, was old and small, but refreshing and cozy and mine. And grownup. So I pulled out of the cupboard matching half-gallon pump bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. No soap so that the tiny soap dish could be for a razor. So that I wouldn’t have to clean soap-drip off the cramped walls. So that I could freaking have something in this world the way I want it without worrying about sinking into soapless poverty.

And now the man who is permanently part of my life but not of my future, who is a committed co-parent but a distant memory, who is familiar but now a stranger—that man put soap in my shower.

So I told him not to put soap in the shower. I explained my plan and my shower gel and my need to feel like I own something. And to fight the panic of that by embracing a decrease in the shower gel stock.

He understood. And he was gracious about it. He is back to being gracious about my brands of crazy, now that he gets to live somewhere else. Or stay somewhere else most of the time and come over to be with his kids and hear theories on soap use now and then.

I was glad he understood.

But then the next day he rearranged the shower gel and the shampoo and put them in the wrong places and now the shower is ruined.

I just can’t even.

Poor guy. He’ll never understand. He just doesn’t get it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t have to understand my kind of crazy.

I just always hoped he would.

And last night, when I mentioned the text to my friends asking for furniture help, my co-parent offered to help me rearrange the garage. Full on “pull everything out, purge some stuff, reorganize the rest, and put it all back” hour-long garage shuffle. The type he’s fought for years.

I told him that he’s a very kind person to help me engage in my favorite form of free therapy: work out panic with heavy physical labor.

Maybe he does actually understand my crazy.

Or maybe he feels guilty about the soap.

I'm starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

I’m starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

 

2

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Peanut has been fascinated by caves for a long time. His only visit to a cave was in utero, when Spouse and I went to Karchner Caverns in Arizona. I was seven months pregnant and had several almost-panic-attacks while underground. Humidity, claustrophobia, and pregnancy-induced inability to breathe made the cave terrifying. But gorgeous. And somehow that must have stuck with him.

Mmmmm. Cave bacon.

We’ve watched the cave episode of Planet Earth maybe five times in a year. He can’t stop talking about a cave movie they watched at school last year.

He’s been asking to go to a cave for months. And I mostly assumed that outside Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad, there aren’t many around us.

Foolish Muggle.

When I finally looked on the googles, I found caves that are literally on the way to our big Tahoe camping trip every year.

So we crammed the kids in the car and tolerated their incessant bickering to see this (all photos below are mine):

 

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Helictites make me think of Unicorns. And this cave had millions of them.

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See? Unicorn horns.

I had forgotten how miraculous it feels to crawl through a small hole in the heat-cracked earth and arrive in a cool, wide, dark tomb carved over tens of thousands of years by slightly acidic water.

We have a friend who caves, but Peanut has only met her once and thus can’t be duly impressed by her hobby/avocation. I want to send her the following photos, though, because we can lure her out to California.

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How about a pool 150 feet down from the cave entrance?

It’s intensely beautiful to watch kids stare way up and then waaaaaay down to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagtites.

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I see you hiding in the draperies, bacon. Sparkly calcite cannot disguise your mock deliciousness.

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Forgot to ask if this white residue on this flowstone was more of the moon milk we saw on the walls. Mmmm. Bacterial moon milk.

 

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I love this dinosaur-mouth configuration so much.

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Theatrical lighting wholeheartedly approved. Wowzers.

The best part wasn’t even the cave, which is saying a lot. The best part was the rock shop on the way out.

A bit of background: I love rock shops more than any single thing in my life, kids notwithstanding. Maybe. Depends on the day. I have dozens, really and truly dozens, of childhood memories of rock shops. I can tell you exactly which rock I bought or found and at which rockshop of patch of earth for every rock ever obtained from the time I was 7. Seriously. I distinctly remember why each of those rocks called to me. Because they call loudly.

And I cannot be dragged from a rock shop until I’m done. Forget can’t…I will not. Not that I’d know. Nobody has ever tried. I have lovely memories of my parents waiting for me at rock shops. Of being left alone to wander, gently touch, careful consider while they were…ah, hell, I don’t know where they were. I can’t imagine they were looking, too. Bored at the door? Consuming secret cookie stashes while I wasn’t looking? I never considered them, selfish rockhound that I am. I’m guessing they were patient at first. And I’m guessing that they got bored, or that my brother got bored, or that I somehow tried everyone’s patience. But know what? I don’t remember caring one whit whether everyone was exasperated with the rock shop or not. I was prepared to spend all day filling my one-ounce cup with perfect rock chip specimens, even if it killed my whole family.

So when my boys entered the rock shop after an hour below ground in a majestic cave, I rather expected them to shrug and ask for candy. My poor sugar-denied kids always ask for candy. And I always say no.

Anticipating their request and their disinterest in the rock shop, I made a beeline to the rock candy I saw as soon as we entered, and waited for them to follow. I was going to make this cave, this rock shop, memorable for my kids, who likely cared more for sugar than for rocks.

But the little guy ignored me and stood, eyes wide, in front of the pick-your-own-rocks barrel. Fill a bag with any rocks you choose? Any at all? My idea of heaven and his idea of…a whole afternoon of joy. He’s four, y’all. And he spent 20 minutes choosing the best rocks. Never once did he see me at the candy display. He was so engrossed in rock selection that he didn’t look up even when his dad offered tiger’s eye rocks for the bag. “Dad,” he said without looking at either the man or the stone, “this is my choice. Stop it.”

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Not bad for a pink-obsessed 4yo…these were his actual selections and he’s still quite proud of them.

No DNA test needed.

The eldest wandered aimlessly. It was as though he couldn’t find the right rock. I let him be, scouring the shelves for rocks that were one part neglected, one part magic, one part architectural marvel, and one part undervalued.

Butter finished his rock bag. He appreciated the rock candy. We went outside with his dad to slurp and ponder his treasure.

And still Peanut wandered. I chose my rock carefully. I triple checked to be sure I wasn’t missing anything on the shelves.

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And still he wandered.

I stayed back and watched for a while. I showed him my finds and he seemed duly unimpressed. I offered suggestions for areas in which to look for something that might speak to him.

And he seemed stymied. No break-your-own-geodes because his aunt and uncle gave him the best geodes ever two years ago, and he doesn’t want more. No dogtooth calcite, for reasons only a psychologist will be able to discern. No broken shark teeth because he found real, intact, beautiful fossilized shark teeth with his dad at the beach. No arrowheads because, “Mom, who would want that? They’re replicas!”

And then he found the select-a-pendant-and-cord display.

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He chose his treasure quickly. Clearly not a natural specimen, and he doesn’t care. Clearly on a weak bale, and he doesn’t care. Clearly exactly and precisely the man-shaped rock he needs right this very minute oh my gawd I can’t wait. He appreciated his rock candy, but not as much as his necklace.

He made it to the car before he realized his necklace had already fallen off.

Parking lot of gravel. Grey rock on grey cord.

A lot of looking.

Butter found it for him, how I’ll never know. In the middle of the parking lot.

So we have our cave experience. And our rocks. We don’t have any more rock candy. But it was as delicious as any Doozer sugar sculpture*.

* I read that Doozers’ buildings are allegedly radish dust, but those are clearly made of sugar. My entire childhood will be a lie if Doozer buildings aren’t basically rock candy.

So we’ve visited our first cave. And our first rock shop. And our first rock tragedy was narrowly averted by a hero within our own family.

All, my friends, ALL was right with the world in that moment.**

**Except that almost nothing is right with the larger world right now, and that rock candy might not be a Doozer creation. But I’m trying to not have a sad on my cave and rock post. Because perfection.

 

 

10

Standing ’round the sink

A few months ago, J.C. Little, The Animated Woman, wrote a post about how much her family has bonded over washing dishes together.

And I thought briefly about washing the dishes with my kids. J.C. made it sound so tactile and engaging, so warm and sudsy. And I recalled doing dishes with my stepmom, talking.

But I also remembered reaching into the cool-ish, dirty water to fish out whatever was on the bottom: slime, forks, or a sharp knife.
*Shudder*
No thank you, J.C.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen. What? You don't know.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen.
What?! You don’t know.

But her post gave me an idea. Six days before I read that lovely post about family bonding over dishes, my sometimes-washer-of-dishes moved to another house. So I’d been doing 100% more dishes by myself for a few days. And I didn’t like it. Not that washing dishes is a big deal. But when you have extremely limited time, most of which is crammed with paid and unpaid activities promised to someone else, washing dishes is a big ol’ “seriously, would paper plates really ruin the world if I used them just until I submit the next big project?” tirade of justifications and pouts while scraping preschooler rejects into the compost.

So the next morning I asked my eight-year-old Peanut to empty the dishwasher, please. He shrugged and emptied the whole thing. It was the first time I’d asked him to this, but he’s an enormously bright boy and member of the family and has thus experienced the acquisition of clean dishes from cupboards. He could therefore extrapolate the placement of clean dishes in the same cupboards. [May that be proof, some day, when his partner claims he 'doesn't know where anything goes.'] The next time I asked, four-year-old Butter clamored to help. He’s big on helping. And they got along, doing the job I rather hate, while I made dinner near them.

We were all in the kitchen, excited, mobile, talking, and thanking each other for various tasks that helped the family. Peanut even devised the most brilliant plan, ever: put all the forks in one compartment of the silverware basket, spoons in another, and so on. That way, he pointed out, when we empty we can grab a whole section and just dump it into the right section of the drawer. I marveled at his genius. And I refrained from telling him I’d heard of this maniacally organized plan for dishwasher loading but could never bring myself to spend that much energy on organization of dirty silverware. So we ooh and aah over the boy’s idea, we listen to his argument about the finer points of his plan, and we do it his way. And now he thinks he’s the King of the family.

Wait a minute, here, J.C.! Turns out this trick works even if you *have* a dishwasher!

I’d always said before I had kids that I’d have them do their share of chores. But as their dad and I bickered about who did the dishes, it never occurred to us to farm out that job. We bickered about how and when to put the laundry away, too. So I decided to J.C. this activity, too. After the dishes and breakfast, entering the second week of our new family arrangement, I plopped a basket of laundry on the boys’ floor and asked them to find their stuff and put it away.

Again with the together and the talking and the many hands making light work.

It’s been almost three months. And my kids are emptying and filling the dishwasher every day. And putting away every load of laundry.

And they’re doing it together, while I do something else domestic in the same room. Usually cooking or sweeping. Man, I love me some sweeping. Watch everything that’s wrong with your life gather in a pile, nudge it onto a dustpan, and throw it away forever. Then do it again in three hours because, geez, do these kids grow sand and dirt and…what is that, a twig?…out of their socks?

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

Forcing my kids Working together to do chores feels good. It feels even better to get the work done more quickly and with less fighting.

Thanks, J.C.
I owe you one!

11

We can do it.

The kidlets and I just came back from a camping trip. A whole-family camping trip. And it was amazing.

Challenging. And amazing.

I’ve posted here before about camping and about camping survival. But not yet about camping as a family who live in two houses yet share a tent for a few days in the summer because they’re trying their best to be a good family regardless of logistics. And I’ll post later about the good, the bad, and the midnight vomit I covered with campfire ash so bears wouldn’t come attack my poor food-poisoned child.

But those stories come later. This week I am feeling a bit weak and small, so I’m writing my story of strength.

We camp in the same place each year, beneath the pine trees and clear skies of Lake Tahoe. And on the second or third day of our trip, we do our favorite hike: 7.5 miles with significant elevation change (I think it’s 1,300+ feet total) from our campsite along the remarkable blue of the lake.

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We bring snacks and sandwiches, games and water shoes; and we climb the well-worn dirt path around granite boulders and past an amazing old lighthouse.

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We wind up, after long breaks where we play in the water and build fallen-branch structures, pausing at an old residence that makes me nostalgic for the time when I had millions of dollars and could own part of a lake, an island, and build my own castle.

No? Oh well.

Anyway, after the castle-y thing we walk up a steep road and catch a trolley back to a road about 1.5 miles from our tent. The day we do the hike is usually the crowning glory of our eldest’s year, and both his grownups quite enjoy it, too. I genuinely have no idea if it makes any impression on the four-year-old, but he rides on my back and his dad’s shoulders for much of it, so I can’t see how this hike is any different for him than any other. But who knows. He’s an enigma.

This year, once we got to the trolley stop, the boys’ dad wanted to run back along the lake, the long way, while the boys and I took the motorized shortcut back. Sure. No problem. We have no cell service, but we do have tons of food and water and we know the trolley is coming soon so we’ll likely beat him back to camp. The boys begin plotting how they’ll surprise their dad when he gets back.

So the boys and I sit on rocky half-wall in the 80-degree-sun and wait. And wait. And wait. Thankfully, there was a local family with two young boys waiting, too, who reassured us that the trolley was indeed running and that it would eventually be there.

We all watched carefully every vehicle that came into view along the winding highway, cursing each red car for not being a red and gold trolley. The selfies with my boys grew more and more deflated looking.

An hour later, after my sweet, tired little monkeys had sunk into the “you have to be kidding posture” when I offered snacks, water, and a cuddle for the nine-hundredth time, the trolley came. And oh, we did rejoice. The selfies grew adorably cheerful, and Butterbean, my chirpy four-year-old, sang us a trolley song.

And about 3/4 of a mile later, the trolley turned around.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” I asked, genuinely wide-eyed.

“We’re making a U-turn to go back to town,” an otherwise delightful woman told me.

I’m guessing I lookd around at the other passengers in a terrified manner befitting either my situation or a worldwide chocolate shortage, because the driver asked where we were going.

“To the state park a few miles up the road,” I said.

“This trolley doesn’t go there,” he said.

“Um… yuh-huh, it does,” I thought. It has for the past three years.

The processing took me 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Okay: we’ll ride the trolley back to the stop and wait for one that does go to our stop. If he’ll let us off at Vikingsholm, the pretentious rich people castle place. I mean lovely piece of history. I mean…

Actually, no, the next trolley won’t go back to camp, either. The driver got out a brochure and showed me the new map of the trolley’s range. None of the trolleys were headed to our stop. They all turned around 3/4 of a mile from Vikingsholm.

My math slowed down a bit. I have two tired kids. We’ve hiked 6 miles already, and Peanut, who is now 8 and quite proud that he hikes 8 miles in Tahoe every year, is complaining about a sore foot. We have no cell service. Their dad has his phone off for obvious reasons. The town toward which the trolley is heading is 14 miles away and we have no way, once we get there, of getting back. It’s two hours until dark. I have a backpack full of water and snacks to wear in front and an ergo full of 40 pounds of preschooler on my back. It’s 6,800 feet above sealevel and we got here 24 hours ago, so I’m not acclimated. I am also keenly aware that I ran 5 miles in the morning, before we started this lovely, invigorating, breathtaking, family favorite hike.

Please, please no comments about the stupidity of a 5 mile run on a hiking day.

And I have no idea how far it is back to the camp. It’s certainly farther than 3 miles total if we walk on the side of the highway, but likely shorter than going back down to the gorgeous trail and adding another 6 miles. Or driving into town. Or…nope. That’s the end of the options. Walk or…I guess sit down and cry. Those are your choices, lady.

Tired 8-year-old, heavy pacsk, altitude, and at least 3 more miles, some of which on a busy-ish highway. My job is to protect my children. My job is to get them back to camp before dark. My job is to…

“We’ll walk,” I tell the entire trolley, sounding quite reassuring on purpose. I need, desperately, for my eldest to go along with this plan.

And he does.

About 20 feet in, he looks panicked. “Mom, do we have water?”

Smart boy. “Yup. I just refilled all three bottles. I have, no joke, 96 ounces of water, buddy.”

He is pleased with this answer. I am, too, except that 96 ounces of water is really freaking heavy. Six pounds? More than the dried fruit and GORP and crackers, but less than his brother, thank goodness.

So we walk. And I try hard not to think about how far it might be. I make myself remember that we have food and water. That nobody is hurt. That if the shoulder gets too narrow (which it did, several times), we can bide our time and run across the highway when it’s safe.

That totally fits the whole “keep your children safe” requirement, right? Have them avoid walking along a narrow shoulder by running across a highway?

Yeah.

To quiet the railing inner critics who disdained my decision (but didn’t offer any helpful suggestions, I noted both then and now), we talked as we walked about how their Dad was likely making dinner. And that he’d notice how late we were (now 90 minutes past our ETA) and come get us, probably. (Both were true. But he tried to find us by walking, not driving, so by the time he used the car we were 1/2 mile from camp. It was a very nice 1/2 mile ride, though.)

About a mile into the unplanned walk, Peanut faltered a bit and started to cry. “I just want to go home,” he said, revealing the vulnerable, tender heart he rarely lets us see, except at storytime just before bed.

I nodded as I motioned to him to keep going. “Yep. Me, too, buddy. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to walk and you don’t want to walk, but we have food and water and we’re safe and we’re healthy and we’re going home.”

I’m going to be honest: I wanted to cry, too. And if he had whimpered even a little after my motivational speech, I would have sat down and bawled a good, old-fashioned Holly-Hunter-in-Broadcast-News cry.

But he threw his shoulders back and kept walking.

Peanut is 8 years old, and he walked 10 miles that day. With his backpack and completely unassisted. I am 41, and I traveled 14 miles: five miles running, six miles hiking with a full backpack, and four miles with two packs, one of which contained my sweet little baboon four-year-old. At altitude.

We did it. We both did it. We enjoyed the beauty, we loved the highlights, and we freaking motored through the unexpected bumps.

I told my amazing son, as we devoured warm tortellini and lentils a bit later, that I’d learned something that day.

“Yeah,” he said. “Never do that hike again.”

I laughed. “Well, maybe, but I learned that we’re really strong. You remember I told you that brave is when you’re scared but you do something anyway, because it’s important?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, we are strong. And we are brave. We were scared and we did it anyway.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “And also, never do that hike again.”

I laughed. No way. We’re doing that hike every year now. Because we can do it as an 11 mile loop now, without trolley and without steep road. And without even seeing that freaking highway.

Because we’re strong. And we’re brave.

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